Is Britain headed back to the 1930s?

As campaigning ahead of the UK’s May poll picks up pace, the Conservatives are vulnerable to voter unease about the future of the hallowed NHS.

Britain’s general election campaign has always ended in a sprint that usually starts about three weeks before the voting takes place. This year it is more like a marathon, one that will end on May 7 after 17 weeks of campaigning. It has begun with an exchange of campaign posters.

The Conservatives’ material features a picture of a straight road through green fields towards soft, inviting hills. “Let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy,” it says predictably. (The road pictured is, incidentally, to be found in Germany.) 

Labour’s first poster is tougher stuff. It pictures David Cameron, the Prime Minister, alongside a line reading: “The Tories want to cut spending on public services back to the 1930s when there was no NHS.”  The message is that the NHS cannot survive five more years of Tory government, and the reference to the years of the Great Depression is highly provocative. Nigel Lawson, a former Tory chancellor, once declared that the NHS was the nearest thing the English have to a religion. It makes for potent political propaganda.

The reference to the 1930s, when pensioners lived on average for only a year after retirement and the welfare state was no more than a gleam in Lord Beveridge’s eye, makes Labour’s claim sound like a wild extravagance, but there is a bit more substance to it than that. One of the first curiosities of the campaign is that the ‘back to the 1930s’ theme was presented to Labour, like a gift, by none other than George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  

In his autumn statement early in December 2014, the Chancellor boldly announced his intention to eradicate the budget deficit (now £97.5bn) by 2019-2020. He admitted that the cost of achieving this target will be even greater cuts in public spending than he has imposed in his first term. Osborne estimated they would cost £60bn over the next five years, and that implementing them would reduce government spending to 35.2 per cent of national spending.

The OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) -- the body Osborne himself established to keep Chancellors honest -- commented that this meant that government spending as a percentage of national income would likely be the lowest “in around 80 years”. That takes us back to 1935, which gave Labour a short cut to focussing its campaign strategy on the consequences for the NHS of draconian cuts in public spending.  

What Labour wilfully chooses to ignore is that government spending, like GDP, has risen exponentially since 1935, and has utterly altered Britain’s life and culture. Were Osborne’s plans to be implemented, Professor Nicholas Crofts of Warwick University (quoted in the Financial Times) says that this would take Britain back, not to the 1930s but to the 1950s, when the welfare state and the NHS were already taken for granted.

The CEO of the NHS, Simon Stevens, believes that the cost of the good health of the nation will rise by £30bn in the next six years, a much larger sum than even the Labour Party expected.  On the face it of, Osborne’s spending plans and the NHS’s requirements are wholly incompatible. Vicious spending cuts are the only possible way out, in unprotected services such as welfare, defence, policing, local government and even education.   

For an electorate that has lived with five years of falling real wages at a time when the rich have not been discreet about growing richer, this may prove to be a crucial handicap for the Tories. When Osborne boasts that the recovery is credible and that Britain is the fastest growing economy among the world’s leading industrial nations, the public behaves as if they believe him -- even though his wrong (the US is growing faster). Evidence for this is a rapid growth in personal debt, and a bill for imports that is rising dangerously. The Tory message is ‘Stick to the straight road’.

The Tories do not propose to cut the NHS of course, but fear is a powerful electoral emotion, and Labour has already been able to exploit it. TV regularly puts the latest crisis in the NHS at the top of the news. Accident and emergency departments require thousands more doctors and nurses, not to mention more hospital beds. Complaints about the difficulty of getting an appointment with the GP are becoming routine. The political impact is an unsettled electorate, growing unhappy with what they see and hear.  

Current politics reminds me not of the 1930s or the 1950s but the early 1970s, when Edward Heath was Prime Minister. This was a time of high inflation and rising unemployment, climaxing in a three-day working week when Heath took on the mineworkers. Heath went to the country in 1974, posing the question ‘Who runs Britain?’ Voters decided by a narrow margin that it should not be him, and confirmed this in a second election in 1974.

This election will be unlike any other since 1945. The rise of UKIP, the Scottish Nationalists and the Greens, plus the collapse of the Liberal Democratic vote, make the Tories and Labour unusually vulnerable to tactical errors on the scale of Heath’s. It could be that George Osborne has already made one.

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